Homelessness is the defining social malady of our time. We chase happiness, ignoring those Orwell called “down and out.”
By official counts, the U.S. homeless population has been rising since 2016. Since the pandemic, it’s gotten worse. Anecdotes from Pennsylvania to Washington, South Carolina to Arizona warn of “skyrocketing” numbers and street “tsunamis.”
Now, I might be doomscrolling, jaded, or overthinking. The problem is, we can’t prove or disprove any of it. With all our tech and tools, womanpower and wonkiness, the U.S. has never comprehensively counted houseless humans.
Homelessness is a societal, political, and moral failure. If we want to fix it, we’ll need to pay real attention to the hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people living in tents, tunnels, and Toyotas. We should start by shifting the focus from housing and development to one that centralizes approaches created by people who are already houseless.
Fix the numbers chasm
The National Homelessness Law Center says 3.5 million people are homeless. The Department of Education says it’s 1.5 million. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s count is 580,466, but others calculated 3.7 million on top of those, yielding 4.3 million total. (All of these statistics are pre-pandemic, but they’re the most recent available.) Such disparate, dated data — up to four years old — would never fly in the military, finance, or sports, but somehow we’re okay with it when it comes to humans who need help.
HUD currently requires its local affiliates to count houseless people only every two years, and schedules those counts in January, when folks living outside seek refuge. They rely on volunteers to take their counts. They also take more than a year to crunch the numbers — which are unreliable, because local methodologies differ.
This is pathetic. What we need is a comprehensive, collaborative, and unified national study, done every six months, with results released right away. It should be led by top social scientists and include Silicon Valley CTOs who contribute technologies like lidar and drones, which we currently use to count walruses but not people. Enumerators should be paid. Doubled-up “couch surfers” should be included. Subpopulations missed in the past, like vehicle residents and hospital patients, should be prioritized. This step alone would revolutionize this issue.
Start listening to lived experience
Former President Donald Trump dehumanized people for daring to sleep on “our best highways” and outside buildings with “prestige.” President Biden’s Democrats mostly just ignore people living outside. Neither approach is acceptable.
Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told me last year that the unhoused and formerly unhoused people he works with have not been able to get on HUD Secretary and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Chair Marcia Fudge’s calendar. After I reported that, HUD officials — but not Fudge — met with Whitehead’s coalition.
Along with the birds’-eye view good data provides, housing officials at the very top need the perspective of those who are currently houseless. These people understand policy gaps in ways bureaucrats can’t. They’re bluntly honest, and the secretary needs that right now.
Let’s get Fudge together with unhoused people for three-hour weekly summits. Whitehead envisions a roundtable of people with diverse lived experiences, facilitated by nonprofits from far-flung geographies. “There’s no shortage of groups that would want to have that conversation,” he says. “It would have a huge impact.” HUD will provide the coffee and pastries.
Prioritize a Houseless Climate Conservation Corps
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps gave meaningful work to poor and unhoused people, but they were almost all white men. Eventually it begrudgingly included Black and Indigenous people (often segregated) and women (the “She-She-She” program). In our current climate change emergency, a CCC reboot should be a no-brainer — and Biden has proposed a “Civilian Climate Corps.”
But if it happens, unsheltered houseless folks must be given priority. They’re a natural fit for a new “tree army”: Many of them work; they have smaller carbon footprints than “housies”; they recycle scrap metal like the “tinkers” of old. They care for the environment around their homes, picking up trash and sweeping dirt or gardening. This population is 43% non-white, per a 2020 HUD report, so this is antiracist policy.
Street-based houseless people are directly in the crosshairs of emergent climate disasters. More than half, or 177 of 332 houseless people surveyed in one California county, cited “fires” as a cause of their homelessness. At least eight of those killed during last June’s 116-degree Pacific Northwest heat wave were unhoused. A new HCCC would get vulnerable people off the streets while working to avert a global catastrophe.
Cut Homeland to fund homes
The money for affordable housing, shelters and services has to come from somewhere. Why not George W. Bush’s ill-conceived, fascistically named Department of Homeland Security? Adding DHS’s $53 billion to HUD’s $57 billion budget would nearly double its funding. The Department of Defense can keep its $706 billion budget and use that to secure our homeland.
The billionaires must also pony up. Jeff Bezos and his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott’s unbelievable wealth comes partly from Amazon’s “workampers,” or vehicle residents. Bezos recently gave $96 million to homeless families — half of 1% of his worth. Elon Musk brags that he owns “no house” and dangles but doesn’t give $6 billion to hungry people. Mark Zuckerberg “parachutes” into New Jersey and makes nothing better.
Hey, tycoons: You’d do better just giving unhoused people cash. Or buy some double-decker shelter buses, support work training crowdfunders, or shell out for an emergency weather digital billboard system. You could support villages or offer dignity via mobile showers. That’s a whole lot better than grandstanding on Twitter.
Meet people where they’re at
In HUD’s last street count of the houseless population, in January 2020 (the 2021 street count was canceled due to COVID), a “key finding” was that for the first time since the U.S. started collecting this data, more individuals were “unsheltered” than sheltered. That means living in places not meant for human habitation, like tents, vehicles, subways, disused buildings. These 226,080 people represented a 7% increase over 2019.
People may not stay in shelters because there isn’t sufficient space, especially after the pandemic shift to “non-congregate” shelters. Alternately, many shelters don’t allow the “three P’s” — partners, pets, or possessions — so some individuals can’t stay there.
So they sleep outside, or in vehicles. Yet few taxpayer-funded workers currently count or specifically engage this population. To do that, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel: Outreach teams are a staple, if vastly underutilized, service. They’re connected to systems, trained in trauma, bring resources and supplies such as naloxone for opioid overdose. They carry IDs showing they’re not police.
We should quadruple such programs and send them to urban fringes, where services are sparse, in assigned areas where they can build trust by becoming a familiar, friendly face. They must not be tethered to enforcement actions. Rather, they should focus on reminding people living out-of-doors that, desperate as circumstances may be, there are places and people they can turn to.
Create an Office of Villages and Vehicle Residency
For years, with little federal support for the idea, houseless “villages” have been springing up across the country. The architecture is diverse: tents on skids (including square ones), DIY tiny homes, repurposed shipping containers, Tuff Sheds, little quonset huts, prefab Pallet shelters, customized micro homes.
Their origin stories run the gamut: Some began from protests or occupation, are technically illegal and could be bulldozed, like Portland’s Hazelnut Grove. Others are immediately swept. The longest continuously-sited village, Dignity Village, started in 2000 with “shopping cart parades,” then won official support and a chunk of city-owned land next to a composting facility. Increasingly, local officials and nonprofits are choosing to support or found these communities. One even started a homeownership village.
Safe parking programs, meanwhile, assist unhoused people living on wheels, or “vehicle residents,” which some experts see as the fastest-growing homeless subpopulation. There are 18,904 vehicle residents in Los Angeles alone. While unsupervised areas can devolve, 43 safe parking programs offer village-like supports for these individuals.
These are mostly temporary shelter solutions, not permanent housing. But they’re smart, responsive ideas that need direct support. So let’s turn the Interagency Council on Homelessness into a new Office of Villages & Vehicle Residency. The OVVR could focus its tidy $4 million budget on siting villages and safe lots on vacant federal and other public lands.
Look. Despite social media’s profitable despair, government isn’t broken. House America is getting going. Evictions are becoming less of a blind spot. But we can do so much more. We could declare housing a human right, pass Rep. Cori Bush’s Unhoused Bill of Rights, bring back SROs. Eric Tars, legal director of the NHLC, can imagine a vacancy tax on our 17 million vacant houses. A YIMBYist friend wonders if we should let housing be “shittier.”
When our neighbors are displaced, we throw our hands up, blame them for surviving, or even try to ignore their existence. In journalism, homeless people are rarely seen as credible, and outside of local “street papers,” story ideas almost never come from unhoused people. But we need dialogue about the horrors on our streets, and unhoused people’s voices must be platformed. Journalists should find individuals who want to share their stories. Officials need to immerse themselves in the lived experience. We’ll all look and feel better when we start prioritizing humanity, fresh ideas and — finally — some good numbers.
This story was published in Mic.com.